Elephants alongside livestock in Enduimet WMA, Tanzania. Photo credit: Zac Baynham-Herd.

Read the article here.

The authors have also put together an infographic of their research.

According to the Swahili proverb, when elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers. In a similar way, when groups clash over conservation, the wellbeing of surrounding people and wildlife can also suffer. For instance, clashes between agriculturalist and conservation organisations (over crop-raiding and wildlife killing) can sometimes hinder cooperative solutions which might otherwise benefit local communities of both people and wildlife. Whether they are mediators or stakeholders, conservationists commonly intervene in such conflicts, and typically do so with the aim of changing human behaviour. Yet, the importance of who does the intervening remains underexplored.

In this study, we explored how people living in communities experiencing wildlife conflict in Tanzania respond to different interveners, and whether these relationships are driven by trust. Specifically, we developed an experimental game to test how support for conflict interventions varies with perceptions of the trustworthiness of different intervening groups – in this case a conservation organisation or a group of local community members.

In the game, framed around elephant crop-raiding, local residents had the opportunity to cooperate with an intervening organisation (to reduce the risk of crop-loss), or keep resources for themselves. Cooperating incurred a personal cost (forgone aforementioned resources) but provided a group benefit – thus creating a dilemma. The cooperation decisions made in the game were then compared to the results of a pre-game survey which measured the perceived trustworthiness of each intervening group.

We found that respondents were more likely to cooperate in the game when they perceived the intervening organisation to be more trustworthy. We also found that perceptions of intervener benevolence (how much they cared) and integrity (how much they kept to their word), were stronger predictors of cooperation than perceptions of intervener ability (at protecting village crops from elephants). This was despite the fact that in post-game interviews, intervener ability was the most commonly cited reason for cooperating.

These findings suggest that trust-building, and consideration of who is best placed to intervene in conflicts, may help increase community support for conservation interventions. This study also further demonstrates how experimental games can be used to explore behaviour and generate insights to inform evidence-based conservation. 

Thank you very much to the communities of Enduimet, the WMA staff, and The Honeyguide Foundation for helping us with this research. Thanks also to our research assistants Stephen Sankeni and Joseph Sankeni who made this study possible.